Here's the situation: Francisco goes through a ton of rough stuff. We're talking so much rough stuff that almost every life experience he has includes a major downer. So it's no surprise that when Francisco's telling his tale, he's often got a tone that's pretty somber. For instance, when Francisco's new buddy Miguelito doesn't show up for their play date, our main man's bummed attitude comes out in his tone:
When I returned home from school this afternoon, I went to see if he was waiting for me by the creek. He was not there either. Then I remembered his cabin number. I hurried to number twenty and knocked on the door. No one answered. I went around to the side of the cabin and peaked through the window. The cabin was completely empty. My heart sank into my stomach. Slowly I walked home, feeling a lump in my throat. I heard Miguelito's laugh in my head and thought about our game with the puddles. (5.17)
Things sure aren't coming up roses, so Francisco's not about to be chipper as can be. Since he's telling us all about his sinking heart and oodles of disappointments, we know we've got a seriously somber tone afoot.
Even with his sad tone, Francisco doesn't beat around the bush, though. He tackles the tough stuff straight-on, adding a super straightforward element to his tone too. Our head honcho tells us exactly how he's feeling (super sad) and why (missing his friend), so we aren't left wondering what makes him so down in the mouth.
One of the coolest things about this book is that it's based on real events. Actually, the main character, Francisco, is a version of the author, Francisco Jiménez. Jiménez says that Francisco's stories are "semiautobiographical" because they're based on his life, but not necessarily exact carbon copies (A Note from the Author.1). This means Jiménez isn't just writing an autobiography, he's also playing with the genre—and that's pretty cool.
So since Jiménez based these stories on his own childhood, this book is all about a guy growing up. And that makes this a coming-of-age tale. We get to watch as Francisco goes from a kid in Mexico with big dreams for the future, to an eighth-grader in California who, well, still has some big dreams. But he hits a lot of bumps along the way (seriously—so many bumps), and that's all part of the coming-of-age genre. He may not be an adult by the end of the book (as is often the case in coming of age books), but he's well on his way.
Usually when a book is about a young boy growing up, it's meant to be read by young folks too—and this book is no exception. Remember those bumps along the road in Francisco's tale? They may be different from those other young people experience, but insofar as they're about fitting in and figuring out who you are, they're classic young adult struggles. Don't get us wrong: adults enjoy this book like nobody's business, but its main audience is definitely a younger crowd.
As a title, The Circuit references all of the moving around the characters do in this book. After all, a circuit is basically a journey that goes around and around—and then around some more. And if there's one thing that Francisco and his family know how to do, it's move among the same few cities in California, right along with the seasons. Francisco finds all this moving to be seriously exhausting sometimes, but the circuit they travel is also what keeps this family working and building their lives in sunny Cali.
Because of this—because they're location rotation is something the family does to build their life together—perhaps the title references another, more subtle circuit: the connection between Francisco and his family. They're regular moves make friendships hard to form, but at the same time it also keeps them a tightknit unit—which is a circuit in its own right.
You know the kind of endings where you get your hopes up really high just to have them smashed to smithereens? Well that's what we've got in The Circuit. Yep, this ending is a huge downer.
But before we get to the sad part, we get a steep hill of happiness. Here's how that roller coaster goes:
Francisco has had a rough go of it for years, but by the end of this book everything is coming together. He has the whole school thing figured out. Got a piece of the Declaration of Independence you need memorized? Francisco is your guy. Hankering for some good old-fashioned success in math class? Our main man is on top of that subject, too. To boot, he's living in his favorite city in California—Santa Maria—and Roberto just got a year-round job as a janitor, which means they don't have to move. Life is looking up like it never has before.
But all that sunshine and happiness only lasts for a second, and right as Francisco is ready to recite his memorized portion of the Declaration of Independence, those pesky Border Patrol folks show up to take him away. Seriously—they just show up at his classroom and poof, that's it. He's off and it's all super sudden—and Francisco can't do a thing to stop it:
Putting her right hand on my shoulder, and looking up at the officers, she said sadly, "This is him." My eyes clouded. I stood up and followed the immigration officer out of the classroom and into his car marked "Border Patrol." I sat in the front seat as the officer drove down Broadway to Santa Maria High School to pick up Roberto. (12.87)
Francisco knows what's going to happen (he's heading back to Mexico, folks), and he's not fighting it. This acceptance of his fate is pretty depressing, especially given the fact that he was just ready to take center stage and show off his memorization skills, but it also sets us up for a sequel in a pretty major way. We don't know about you, but we're itching to find out what happens next for Francisco and his family.
Except for the first couple of paragraphs, this entire story takes place in California. (By the way, we could go on forever about California in this book. And we do—just check out the "Themes" section.)
Francisco and his family move all around California's central coast, and each town they live in sees the family members harvesting different crops. Sometimes it can be confusing trying to figure out where they're living in each chapter, but don't worry, Shmoopsters—whenever our characters hop from one place to the next, we'll let you know in the "Summary" section.
So since they're traveling all over California, they're basically in the land of beaches and movie stars, right? We wish. But from the get-go, Francisco and his family learn that their California setting comes in two different versions:
So California seems like a really great place. After all, there's sand and sun, so what's not to love?
Before Francisco and his family move to California, they have big dreams about what it'll be like. And when we say big, we mean seriously huge. Just take a look at Francisco's chitchat with his brother about their soon-to-be home state:
Noting that Papá had closed his eyes, I turned to Roberto and asked, "What's California like?"
"I don't know," he answered, "but Fito told me that people there sweep money off the streets." (1.10-11)
Okay, so… there's some major exaggeration happening here, but this makes it super clear to us that Francisco and his big brother have high hopes for their new setting. They may not actually believe there will be money on the streets, but they sure are looking forward to life being pretty sweet.
We have a feeling no vision of California could ever really live up to the sweeping-money-off-the-streets hype—but we're sad to say that sometimes California really misses the mark. Not only does it not rain money, but money can be pretty hard to come by since jobs are seasonal and kind of scarce. This means Francisco and his family live in a slightly less glamorous version of the Golden State:
We called it Tent City. Everybody called it Tent City, although it was neither a city nor a town. It was a farm worker labor camp owned by Sheehey Strawberry Farms.
Tent City had no address; it was simply known as rural Santa Maria. It was on Main Street, about ten miles east of the center of town. Half a mile east of it were hundreds of acres of strawberries cultivated by Japanese sharecroppers and harvested by people from the camp. Behind Tent City was dry wilderness, and a mile north of it was the city dump. Many of the residents in the camp were single men, most of whom, like us, had crossed the border illegally. There were a few single women and a few families, all Mexican. (4.1-2)
We're pretty sure cousin Fito never mentioned living by the city dump when he was talking about sunny California. In fact, this picture looks seriously different than all those big dreams we heard about. Instead of sweeping up money, Francisco and his family work in labor camps harvesting crops all year round. What do you think of Francisco's tone here? Does he sound sad about where he's living? Or is he okay with it?
There is a stark contrast between Francisco and his family's hopes for their new setting and the reality of their experience of it. To dig a little deeper into this, be sure to check out the analysis of landscapes in the "Themes" section.
Here's the deal: for the most part, this book is a pretty easy read. Jiménez keeps the sentences on the simple side and there's enough action to make this book a breeze to get through. But there are also two things that make The Circuit a wee bit tougher:
Sometimes being completely up-front is the way to go, and when it comes to Francisco's storytelling style, he's candid as can be. Give the kid some clear sentences that get straight to the point and he's happy as a clam—even when there's a lot going on, Francisco keeps things on the simple side. Check out his unfussy style when he's telling us about his family's new home:
The garage was worn out by the years. It had no windows. The walls, eaten by termites, strained to support the roof full of holes. The dirt floor, populated by earthworms, looked like a gray road map.
That night, by the light of a kerosene lamp, we unpacked and cleaned our new home. Roberto swept away the loose dirt, leaving the hard ground. Papá plugged the holes in the walls with old newspapers and tin can tops. Mamá fed my little brothers and sister. (9.15-16)
Did you notice how Francisco's style feels pretty effortless? He's not making things extra complicated or flowery, but just telling us what's what in his own clear-cut way. This means his candid sentences are on the short side, though he still packs in all the key details.
Speaking of details, they are bursting out of the seams of this tale, because Francisco's clear and candid style is also seriously detailed. No need to wonder what the holes of his walls look like—he's already given us a picture that's crystal clear. And if you've got a hankering to know how each family member helps out with the move, he's already packed that information in too.
If there's one thing that can make Francisco's super clear style tougher for English readers though, it's all the Spanish words and phrases peppered throughout the book. Francisco's native language is Spanish and he's learning English, so it totally makes sense that we'd see both languages in the book. But it can also make for some extra work for English readers.
Sometimes Francisco uses Spanish words for titles of people, like when he and his dad are talking about Papá's abuelita (grandmother) (11.11). And there are also oodles of places where Francisco uses Spanish and English words interchangeably to refer to the same object—just check out how he calls his notebook both his librito and his notepad (11.35). Usually all it takes to figure out the meaning of the Spanish word is paying attention to the story's context, like in this passage:
"La frontera" is a word I often heard when I was a child living in El Rancho Blanco, a small village nestled on barren, dry hills several miles north of Guadalajara, Mexico. I heard it for the first time back in the late 1940s when Papá and Mamá told me and Roberto, my older brother, that someday we would take a long trip north, cross la frontera, enter California, and leave our poverty behind. (1.1)
Since Francisco talks about moving from Mexico to California and "la frontera" shows up right before Cali, we can take an educated guess that la frontera means the border. And it does. But if you're not a Spanish language buff, don't fret—we'll help translate all the Spanish phrases for you, and here's a handy dandy translation link for good measure.
Here's the deal: in this book, the fields and crops give us imagery that is both beautiful and backbreaking. Yep, this imagery packs a one-two punch, and is both at once. Hop in the Shmoop-mobile and we'll show you how this works.
Picture this: you're driving along in sunny California and there're crops as far as the eye can see. There are vines with grapes, or maybe plants with strawberries or cotton. And with all those colors, the crops are quite a sight to be seen. Well that's a picture Francisco gets all the time:
In the latter part of October, after the grape season was over, we left Mr. Jacobson's vineyards in Fresno and headed for Corcoran to pick cotton. As we drove down the narrow, two-lane road, we passed vineyard after vineyard. Stripped of their grapes, the vines were now draped in yellow, orange, and brown leaves. Within a couple of hours, the vineyards gave way to cotton fields. On both sides of the road we were surrounded by miles and miles of cotton plants. (8.1)
Sounds pretty, right? There's nothing like the word draped to conjure a soothing scene. But before we start daydreaming about diving into fluffy heaps of cotton, let's not forget that before long Francisco and his family will be working in those cotton fields. And when we say working, we mean twelve-hours each day under a beating sun. Or sometimes when it's freezing cold. With just a teensy tiny break for lunch. Instead of a serene scene, then, this image of the fields also represents back-breaking work.
So we've got some pretty views of fields, plus the hard truth that fieldworkers end up laboring like mad to harvest all the crops. This imagery really is two things at once.
How do you think the beautiful fields imagery relates to the backbreaking imagery of harvesting those crops? Does one overpower the other?
Were you as impressed as we were by Francisco's penny collection? He takes good care of those little coins, and shows a lot of pride in them—so when Rorra trades his best two pennies for gumballs, it's a major bummer. It's an innocent mistake on her part—sometimes toddlers steal your stuff and spend it on candy—but since Francisco doesn't have a whole lot to call his own (his family doesn't even live in one place for very long), it's just that much more of a loss for our main man.
Okay, so the pennies are seriously important to Francisco. But the two pennies Rorra, er, borrows, are the cream of his crop. Francisco has a 1910 Lincoln Head penny that his dad passed down to him, and an 1865 Indian Head penny that his fifth-grade buddy, Carl, gave him. While it's cool from a coin collecting point of view that the pennies are super old—and therefore pretty rare—what makes them so special to Francisco is who gave them to him.
You see, Francisco really values the people who make a difference in his life—like his cool Papá—and when it comes to good friends, it's hard to make them when you're moving around every couple months, so finding a buddy like Carl is extra special.
So the pennies represent relationships and important connections for Francisco. And when it comes to his friendship with Carl, the penny isn't just a reminder of what the two boys had between them—it was key to their friendship forming in the first place. Check it out:
As we made our way up the San Luis Obispo grade, I placed the Lincoln Head penny back in the box and took out my 1865 Indian Head coin.
Carl had given it to me when I was in the fifth grade in Corcoran. He and I were good friends in school. And when we found out that we both collected coins, we became the best of friends. We made sure we got on each other's team when we played ball during recess, and we ate our lunch together every day. (11.17-18)
It sounds like if it weren't for pennies, Carl and Francisco might not have gotten as close. Did you notice how their shared interest in coins really amps up their friendship? Thanks to those pennies, now they're hanging out all the time. Their time together is short-lived, but at least Francisco has the penny to remember Carl by… until, of course, he doesn't anymore.
Francisco doesn't have a ton of prized possessions. In fact, he hardly has any possessions at all. So when it comes to his precious notepad (a.k.a. his librito), he holds onto that sucker for dear life. And we're thinking that this notepad has a lot to teach us about hard work and about loss.
Francisco's notepad is chock full of his hard work. You see, he starts writing down all the new words and math rules that he learns in school in this notebook, and then he takes it with him everywhere. And when we say everywhere, we mean it. We wouldn't be surprised if he sleeps with the thing, and dude even keeps the note pad with him while he's picking crops:
And after I left Miss Martin's class, I continued adding new words and their definitions to my note pad. I also wrote other things I needed to learn for school and things I wanted to know by heart, like spelling words, and math and grammar rules. I carried the note pad in my shirt pocket and, while I worked in the fields, memorized the information I had written in it. I took my librito with me wherever I went. (11.35)
Even though the notebook started out as something he just did in Miss Martin's class at school, Francisco takes it to a whole new level. Did you notice how he's basically always working on memorizing new words and rules? Even working hard in the fields isn't going to stop this chap. He's been bitten by the education bug, and nothing's going to stop him from learning—not working in the fields, not changing schools on the regular, and not missing out on whole chunks of the school year.
Okay, so this notepad has a lot to do with persistence—and that's cool and all—but eventually Francisco's snazzy little notebook gets burned to smithereens in a fire. Losing this notepad ends up being one of the biggest losses in the whole book, and Francisco freaks out when it burns up. He feels like he'll never get over it, but in the end, it's not all bad. In fact, Francisco discovers something pretty cool:
Then, for a long time, I thought about my librito and what Mamá had said. I could see in my mind every word, every number, every rule, I had written in my note pad. I knew everything in it by heart. Mamá was right. It was not all lost. (11.79)
Even though the notepad is gone, Francisco's hard work has still paid off. He realizes here that he has all his words and rules memorized, so he doesn't even need to look at them in a notebook anymore. Everything he's been studying and learning is safe inside his head—it's his now, so though he feels a sense of loss when his notebook burns, he also gains an appreciation for how much he's learned and sees that his commitment to his education is paying off.
We see trains only a couple of times in The Circuit, but they're super important. Here are the main two places we see them:
In both cases, trains bring the good times with them. While they're on their way to California, the whole family is dreaming of their new life—so the train is literally carrying hope as it hurtles toward the United States. And while California may night live up to the hype once they arrive, their time on the train lets us know that this is a family of dreamers, and a family willing to give up a lot—the train takes them far away from their home—to build better lives for themselves.
When they get to the strawberry farms, watching for the train becomes Roberto and Francisco's favorite time of day. It's a pretty special bonding experience for these brothers, and it's only made more special by the nice conductor:
The conductor slowed the train to a crawl, waved, and gently dropped a large brown bag in front of us as he went by. We picked it up and looked inside. It was full of oranges, apples, and candy. (1.39)
Um… that's awesome, right? Right. When you find a train that dispenses candy, you know you've found a good thing. And since this is one of the first experiences Francisco and Roberto have in California, it feels like a magical place full of friendly folks and sweet treats. It certainly warms their welcome, if you will.
When it comes to storytelling, Francisco has it in the bag—this is his show, start to finish, told in his own words. Luckily for us, he's a pretty detailed guy, ready to share all the ins and outs of his daily life, in addition to his thoughts, feelings, and pretty much anything (and everything) else he can think of. Just take a look at Francisco's perspective when his family has to move again:
As we drove home Papá did not say a word. With both hands on the wheel, he stared at the dirt road. My older brother, Roberto, was also silent. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Once in a while he cleared from his throat the dust that blew in from outside.
Yes, it was that time of year. When I opened the front door to the shack, I stopped. Everything we owned was neatly packed in cardboard boxes. Suddenly I felt even more the weight of hours, days, weeks, and months of work. I sat down on a box. The thought of having to move to Fresno and knowing what was in store for me there brought tears to my eyes.
That night I could not sleep. I lay in bed thinking about how much I hated this move. (9.4-6)
Did you notice how we're seriously inside Francisco's head? We get to hear each and every one of his thoughts and feelings, even if he's not telling them to anyone else. He feels sad and angry and ready to burst into tears, and we get all the details, though he doesn't utter a word out loud.
But there're also two blokes in this passage whose thoughts we don't get to hear—yep, that would be Papá and Roberto. Sure, we can take a guess about how they're feeling because of their actions—and all that silent staring and throat-clearing has us figuring that they're not the happiest campers ever—but we aren't inside their heads. And neither is Francisco. In other words, we're left to guess about them based on Francisco's understanding, so there's some room for inaccuracy.
So that's the downside to first-person narration: even though you get a super deep look at one point of view, you don't get to hear what the other folks are thinking.
What do you think about Francisco's first-person tale? How would his story have been different if it were told in the third-person?
When Francisco and his family decide to move their digs from California to Mexico, everyone is on board (literally: they take a train). But seriously, Francisco's family is ready for a big new adventure. Oh right, there are these border patrol guys with guns that they have to avoid when they crawl under the fence to enter the United States, but they're still expecting life to be ridiculously awesome up in good old sunny CA.
We'll admit it: California doesn't totally live up to the hype. Francisco and his family spend a lot of time moving around looking for work, which isn't always fun—but at least now Francisco gets to go to school. Unfortunately though, since they move all the time, he's always starting and leaving in the middle of the year, plus the teachers kinda just ignore him because he doesn't speak English. But it's a start. All these new struggles in California definitely provide for some serious drama.
If you're having trouble finding a super major turning point in this book, we're with you. There isn't one huge event that turns everything around for Francisco—but there is a small event that's super important in his life: when he meets Mr. Lema. Mr. L is an awesome teacher and he gets Francisco stoked about learning English. They only spend a wee bit of time together, but Mr. L makes a huge impact on our main man. In fact, Francisco will never be the same again, so even though it's not super obvious, that's how we know this is the climax.
After Mr. L gets Francisco psyched about learning, things just start coasting along. Our head honcho gets used to working long hours and moving around a lot, and he gets even better at school. We'll admit that there are a few little hiccups along the way—like when Rorra steals Francisco's favorite pennies or when their house burns down (okay, that's a big hiccup)—but overall life is going pretty smoothly for Francisco.
Things are going so well now that Francisco has the whole work and school thing figured out—he's even memorized part of the Declaration of Independence for class and he's ready to recite that bad boy any minute. But right when he's about to get some major glory, the border patrol folks show up to take him away. And with that, we've got a pretty stinky resolution to this chap's California adventure.